One fine Spring afternoon in 1982 I found myself walking across the school playground (or quadrangle as we used to call it) in the middle of a class period. I don’t recall how I had escaped the confines of the classroom, or indeed if I was a messenger boy for some lazy teacher, but there I was with a few minutes of precious freedom. Of course I had enjoyed other moments of freedom during those heady high school days, but what made this sliver of personal sovereignty so memorable was the soundtrack accompaniment to my purposeful crossing of school grounds. From the art department building, just a stones throw away, came the raucous vocal chorus of an 8th grade class, accompanying the song ‘If You Want Me Love’ by Cheap Trick. The song was at its peak on the national charts at the time, and similarly ranked high on my personal hit parade. I stopped halfway across the playground and stood mesmerised, listening intently, soaking up every moment, carefully framing the experience in a place of honour for my future museum of recollections. At the end of every chorus, each and every kid in that classroom sang at the top of their lungs the high pitched ‘ooooooooooooooooh’, and I could feel that uplifting energy surging through the air. I’ve thought about that moment a number of times over the ensuing 25+ years, and at times I’ve wondered why it resonates so strongly (and wondered why my art class experiences weren’t as much fun). I think like most things we associate with our youth it represents a moment of pure exuberance, and those moments become all too rare with the onset of adulthood. In that fragment of memory remains a connection with something extraordinary and elusive, a treasure untarnished by the accumulated layers of life’s worries and responsibilities. Over the years I’ve tapped into that magical memory sparingly though, aware that its enchantment might be lost if it’s not given time to recharge between uses.
In about 1990 I recall buying a ticket to see Cheap Trick in concert, actually it was a double bill with the Australian band the Angels. The Angels had experienced a huge revival at the time and were the headline act, but it was Cheap Trick I was more interested in seeing - well it was really that one song that I wanted to hear live - ‘If You Want My Love’. They did play it, and played it quite well, but sadly the magic wasn’t replicated by the crowd, many of whom were more interested in the Angels (and some of whom were off their collective faces). So in that makeshift circus tent on the cities foreshore, I realised something very important that night. Those memories that are forged early, and shine the brightest, are impossible to replicate later on - all the more reason to treasure them for what they are. My God that sounds so freaking ‘Wonder Years’ - bleeegghhh! I promise I’m not the spirit of Kevin Arnold reincarnated, or even that voice over guy Daniel Stern, so before you switch over off the nostalgia network to escape this incessant reminiscing, here’s a bit more about the band behind the song - Cheap Trick. Cheap Trick formed during 1972 in the city of Rockford, Illinois, though their earliest origins can be traced back to the early 60s during which time guitarist/songwriter Rick Nielsen played with a number of bands including the Phaetons, the Grim Reapers and a band called Fuse, which also featured bass player Tom Petersson. They released a self titled album in 1969 on the Epic label which sank without a trace. Over the next year or two Nielsen and Petersson joined up with ex-Nazz members Robert ‘Stewkey’ Antoni (vocals) and Thom Mooney (drums - future Paris - see recent Bob Welch post).
By 1972 they had taken on the moniker of Sick Man Of Europe and relocated to Philadelphia. Drummer Brad Carlson (soon to be known as Bun E. Carlos) joined the line-up and a vocalist by the name of Randy ‘Xeno’ Hogan fronted the act for a time. Not surprisingly Sick Man Of Europe failed to crack it, and the members returned to Rockford to rethink their strategy. They added singer/guitarist (and former folkie) Robin Zander to the mix and hey presto Cheap Trick was born. Under the guidance of new manager Ken Adamany, the pop-rock quartet of Robin Zander (vocals/guitar), Tom Petersson (bass), Bun E. Carlos (drums), and the wacky guitar wizard/chief song writer Rick Nielsen (who reputedly already owned a growing collection of guitars that numbered in the dozens) started doing the hard yards playing the bar and club circuits - for the next five years. They finally landed a record deal with Epic, after being discovered by Aerosmith producer Jack Douglas. They’d also built up quite a reputation for zany, bordering on cartoonish stage antics, and persona to match, with rock geek extraordinaire Rick Nielson the natural focal point (along with his collection of baseball caps). In early ‘77 Cheap Trick released their eponymous debut album (produced by Jack Douglas), which contained all the best elements of their live work, with crunching, melodic and slightly off-beat rock, laced with oft times quirky, bordering on irreverent lyrics.
Their sophomore album ‘In Color’ (OZ#93/US#73) hit the shelves in the U.S. in August ‘77 and proved the breakthrough set for the Illinois rockers. It took their first attempt at pristine power-pop and refined it to a near flawless formula. Irresistible hooks bubbled to the surface on tracks like ‘Clock Strikes Ten’ and ‘I Want You To Want Me’ (which missed first time around as a single release). Comparisons were drawn to the melodic genius of The Beatles, though in fairness to Cheap Trick they were quickly establishing a solid repertoire of material in their own right, brim full of cheeky attitude, piercing power chords, and finely crafted pop. The band kept up a relentless touring schedule around the world during this period, and played on average 300 gigs a year, including opening for rock giants KISS, Santana and Queen. They found time to record a third album during the first half of ‘78 titled ‘Heaven Tonight’ (OZ#84/US#48) which spawned Cheap Trick’s first chart hit with ‘Surrender’ (US#62/ OZ#32), followed by ‘California Man’ (OZ#91) in early ‘79. In contrast to modest sales at home, Cheap Trick’s first three albums had all achieved gold certification in Japan, prompting the band to tour their extensively. In late ‘78 the band recorded a live performance at the famous Budokan Arena venue in Tokyo and released it as a live album, titled funnily enough ‘Live At Budokan’. Initially the album was only intended for release in Japan, but such was the demand for the title on import that it received a worldwide release soon after. Given the band’s strong reputation as a class act on stage, it was appropriate that their first major hit single was a ‘live’ recording. ‘I Want You To Want Me’ was reworked from its original ‘In Color’ album version, and took on a whole new high energy dynamic, capturing the rampant kinetic force that was Cheap Trick live. It rocketed to #7 on the U.S. charts in mid ‘79 and performed well in Britain (#29) and Australia (#43), raising the band’s global profile immeasurably. ‘Live At Budokan’ also took the band’s album sales to new levels (UK#29/OZ#32/US#4) going triple platinum, and yielded another U.S. top 40 hit with the single ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ (US#35), Cheap Trick’s take on the old Fats Domino classic. Needless to say Cheap Trick also became one of the most popular international acts to visit Japanese shores. They’d risen to be the headline act at arenas and stadiums, but the one thing still missing from the Cheap Trick profile was an arresting studio hit.
They pulled a rabbit out of the hat with 1979’s ‘Dream Police’. The rollicking rock refrain rocketed up the charts here in Australia to peak at #10 late in ‘79. It also consolidated Cheap Trick’s rock appeal Stateside, where it climbed to #26. The album of the same name further established the band’s growing reputation across the world (OZ#7/UK#41/US#6), and realised another two hits, with ‘Voices’ (US#32) and ‘Way Of The World’ (UK#73). Cheap Trick provided the song ‘Everything Works If You Let It’ (US#44) for the motion picture ‘Roadie’ (starring Meat Loaf), then set about work on their next album ‘All Shook Up’ (OZ#68/US#24). The album (produced by George Martin) appeared to have been somewhat of a miscalculation for the self-confessed Beatles’ devotees, who set aside their proven melodic-rock formula in pursuit of a more ornate, Beatlesque sound. The album yielded only one minor hit with ‘Stop This Game’ (US#48/OZ#97), and it appeared that the runaway train that was Cheap Trick had come to grinding halt. As a small footnote to the George Martin/‘All Shook Up’ album experience, it was rumoured that Zander, Nielsen and Carlos contributed to the recording sessions for the John Lennon/Yoko Ono album ‘Double Fantasy’ during 1980. Though none are credited, it’s not clear if any of the tracks they contributed to wound up on the final cut, but given ‘Double Fantasy’s producer was Jack Douglas, the guy who played a key role in getting Cheap Trick signed with Epic, it’s a reasonable bet there is some truth in that rumour. Soon after the release of ‘All Shook Up’, bassist Tom Petersson took his leave of the band to form another group with his wife Dagmar, and was replaced initially by Pete Comita, then in turn by Jon Brant. The band were then hit by the ignominy of having an entire album of recorded material rejected by their label Epic (who were extremely gun shy following the debacle of ‘All Shook Up’), which led to a flurry of legal action. It seemed that Cheap Trick had hit a low point in their ten year career. It would take something special to revive the group’s flagging fortunes.